I just passed my thirty-eighth birthday. Turning 38 in a COVID year equated to enjoying some chocolate cake in sweet silence, reveling in the excitement of a new Pyrex bowl set (with lids though!) and the gift of not cooking dinner all week.
Much of the last year has felt like an odd but persistent coupling of simultaneous overwhelm and underwhelm. No wonder we can’t sort ourselves out. Everything we are experiencing feels like a conflict of two opposing forces. Too much and too little. Ambition and stalling. Good and evil.
I spent much of the last year doing things I don’t normally do. I aced my job as summer camp counselor to my two homebound children. I collected a lot of boxes for crafts (i.e., “Save that box, that’s a good box!”). I have been the on-call parent waiting for the morning message that says, “your child has been exposed, do not send them to school. You will be virtual for the next two weeks.” I am underwhelmed by the smallness that is my current daily world, and overwhelmed by all that is in the world, and all that might be.
Admittedly, this new assignment hasn’t always fared well with my ego, who often says…
“I didn’t sign up for this.”
“I’m not making any money.”
“I should be out there doing more.”
“I am not working on anything important.”
This is a question of what I “do” versus who I “am.”
I am temporarily doing what I need to in order to keep my family safe, help the community, and contribute in ways I am able right now. Just because I have some projects on hold right now doesn’t mean that I am no longer capable or worthy of that work. I am the same person I was (perhaps even a wiser one) and I will “doing” again some day. Until then, I can just be.
But the real work, the hardest most important work, is what is surfacing for me right now. I am naming this “Big Work.”
As a self-diagnosed over-achiever, I have had a lifetime of setting lofty goals, working incredibly hard to achieve them, and then enjoying the validation and recognition that came from those very ambitions and visible achievements. For people who love achievement, this cycle is a deeply ingrained way of living. I will admit that my ego has yelled back several times loud and proud as I submit to the idea that I will not be receiving any notice, recognition or even validation of the “right path” from anyone. If I do something great, but no one even notices, does it even matter?
I believe it does.
At the risk of making this public and losing the anonymous nature of the work, I am sharing these here for two reasons. One, for accountability and two, in case you need to allow yourself the permission to do some Big Work yourself. Here is some of the Big Work that I have accepted as a life-long practice.
Raising our children
It has become abundantly clear this past year that we do not value the work parents do enough in raising the future of society. Yes, lots of people have children. Yes, most of us signed up for this. But the fact that our children were home with limited childcare options for most of a year has meant that predominantly women have exited the workforce to take care of their families. No one is going to give any of us medals for being parents. But it is some of the most important Big Work of our lives. Instead of a medal, I wish employers and elected officials would do everything they can to support working parents. Growing tiny peoples’ social and emotional wellbeing, their love for learning and creating stable, kind, resilient humans is not for the faint of heart. This will be some of the most challenging, endurance-based and meaningful work in my life.
I have been on my own anti-racism journey for a few years now, but this year evolved me. I moved from a sense of taking action “right now” to truly understanding in my bones that this is a lifetime of Big Work. That means less about being responsive to events and more about building a web of anti-racism all of the time. That means having conversations with white people at every moment presented. It means continually exposing my children to people who don’t look like them through our book shelf, our screens, our friends, and our excursions. I have had previously avoided uncomfortable discussions (for me) with my six-year-old about racism, police brutality, and othering. It means funding organizations and black leaders that are making an impact in the community. Performative and reactive actions might be tempting, but I am committed to doing the work that may only be seen in a generation.
I have a favorite meditation that invites you to imagine your future self on a bench. You go up to future you to find out what they know/are that you can realize you already know and are at this moment. When I envisioned future me, I noticed she was so at peace with herself. “What was that?”, I asked wondered. And I named it: self-compassion. Not my best current skill set.
What I realized was that I simply couldn’t be that imagined, peaceful future me without self-compassion. And so, for the first time in my life I understood that self-compassion was a mandatory skill set for me to master, not a “nice-to-have.” I had always approached it like a skim milk, side-dish-type of skill that seemed really nice, but I could just muscle through it. Muscling through it meant the opposite of self-compassion, bullying myself into always doing more.
When we change our mindset from something we “should” do to something we “must” do, our commitment level to the practice changes. We stop avoiding it and just take action to become the person we must be. No one will ever know whether I am more compassionate to myself. There is no award list for the most self-compassionate people in your city. This is Big Work.
Look, I know I am still kind of intense. I probably always will be. If my Peloton workouts are any indication, I know I will always be the person who goes all out. Like, one level below puking. Because hey…how we do anything is how we do everything.
My ego still flares up. My internal storyteller (who is incredibly unfair) reminds me often that I am unproductive, that my efforts are not enough and that I am not making an impact.
My mantra to defend against this is, “All that I am doing is my life’s work.”
At home with the kids instead of working? Raising my children is my life’s Big Work.
Not doing enough to combat the world’s inequities? This is a lifetime of Big Work. Do it daily.
Feeling small when doing the 452nd load of laundry this week? Enabling my life’s Big Work.
I have this written in a few prominent places in my house as a reminder. When I feel my body tensing up in frustration or resistance, that is my cue to look at my nearest note.
“All that I am doing is my life’s work.”
And I am reminded that any long-lasting meaningful impacts will take a lifetime.
Sending love to you all who are feeling out your own Big Work.
About the author:
Katie Rasoul is a keynote speaker, writer, leadership coach and Chief Awesome Officer for Team Awesome, a leadership coaching and culture consulting firm. She is a TEDx speaker alumna, author of the best-selling book, Hidden Brilliance: A High-Achieving Introvert’s Guide to Self-Discovery, Leadership and Playing Big, and co-host of The Life and Leadership Podcast.
To learn more about Katie’s signature keynote talk “Belonging: The Extraordinary Factor of Organizations with Humanity and Heart” visit www.katierasoul.com.